Illustration for article titled Texas newspaper opens a bar-café because people would rather drink than buy ads
Photo: RobertBreitpaul (iStock)

The last newspaper I worked at used to have, back in the ’90s, the biggest classified section in the country. The ads filled an entire section of the paper—the largest—and the money rolled in. Reporters made livable salaries. Editors were able to have families. There was profit sharing. Parties! Fun! Good times! The few people who were still around from the boom times would tell us stories about those days that sounded like fairy tales. This was usually late at night, usually during someone’s going away party.

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Those days, needless to say, were long gone by the time I got there. Budgets were tight. Our salaries were calculated down to the penny. We took bets on how much longer it would last. Management sometimes asked us to dream up extra ways of making money. We considered bake sales. Published collections of our best stories (already available online for free). Inevitably someone would say, “How about we open a bar?”

Now the owners of The Big Bend Sentinel, the weekly paper in Marfa, Texas, have done almost precisely that, except that they also sell coffee and rent the place out as an event space. Maisie Crow and Max Kabat, two New Yorkers who became the paper’s publishers last year, thought it would be a good idea to bring the citizens of Marfa physically closer to the newspaper. Also journalism has traditionally run on coffee and beer (though more coffee than beer these days, and also sparkling water).

The New York Times visited both The Sentinel and the Sentinel and reported that everything seems to be going well. Since the space was formerly a dive bar and before that a funeral home, the interior decorator burned a lot of sage before starting work. Now locals and tourists hang out there during the day, and sometimes reporters will come over from the office next door to work on their laptops. Local chefs rent out the kitchen. The paper holds public events there.

The paper and the café remain separate business entities, since, as the Times explains, “any business with a Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission license for serving alcohol is subject to warrantless searches by law enforcement, and they didn’t want to take that risk with the newsroom.”

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Still, since The Sentinel opened, the Sentinel’s online traffic is up and the publishers haven’t had to raise subscription costs. A win for everybody.

Aimee Levitt is associate editor of The Takeout.

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